The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

In basic terms, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is about a ranch hand fulfilling his promise to bury his best friend in his hometown in Mexico. But on a deeper level, it’s about the intrusion of modern values on what used to be the Old West, about a cowboy clinging desperately to a way of life that has nearly disappeared.

The cowboy is named Pete Perkins, and he is played by Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed the film — his first time in that capacity, and what a thoroughly eloquent job he has done. Jones gives the film a casual, loping feel. Many scenes in the first 45 minutes appear out of chronological order, giving the sense that the sequence was chosen randomly — but in fact a close look shows that Jones has constructed the film very carefully, revealing things methodically and purposefully.

Pete works in a southwestern Texas town, and his best friend is an illegal alien named Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo). Pete speaks Spanish pretty well, owing to his living in a border town and often working with immigrants. Though rough around the edges, he is possessed of a warm heart and a strong sense of justice. He would be a true cowboy if only this were 1890 instead of 2005.

Pete’s opposite is Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a border patrol officer who has just moved down from Cincinnati with his young wife Lou Ann (January Jones). Mike spends his days hating illegal aliens, reading Hustler magazine while he’s on patrol, then coming home and exercising his husbandly rights with his bored wife.

Lou Ann and Mike are a white-trash couple who live in a trailer park, and Lou Ann doesn’t know a soul in town. She misses home. “Cincinnati’s really pretty in the springtime,” she tells a diner waitress. “There’s lots of malls.”

That diner waitress is Rachel (Melissa Leo), a 40-ish powerhouse of a woman who is carrying on affairs with both Pete and the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam), possibly others. Her husband Bob, owner of the diner, scrambles eggs in silent obliviousness. Rachel befriends Lou Ann and the two of them go off in search of adventure together.

At some point, Melquiades dies. In fact, his death is discovered in the movie’s first scene; as I said, events are shown out of order for a while. (The very compassionate screenplay is by Mexico’s Guillermo Arriaga, whose previous works — “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams” — also used non-linear storytelling.) How he dies, and what happens next, is what comprises the bulk of the film.

Like any good cowboy, Pete has a strong sense of right and wrong — but only in certain areas. Adultery is fine, for example. He is unwavering in his efforts to fulfill Melquiades’ request to be buried in a tiny village in northern Mexico, doing what he believes to be God’s work but taking extremely questionable measures to accomplish it.

Mike, meanwhile, needs a mighty change of heart if he’s going to keep his wife, his job and his life. He is essentially put into a crucible, a situation that will force him to either change or die. I wonder if a change wrought by such invasive means really counts. Sure, Saul saw God on the road to Damascus and subsequently was a new man. But that was God working on him directly. Does it count if the intervention comes not from God but from someone who merely thinks he speaks for God? How much wrong are you allowed to do in the name of rightness?

The sunny, sagebrushed vistas of the Southwest have never looked as striking as they do here, photographed by two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges. The colors pop, the “bland” landscapes seem vibrant, the dust on the ground seems palpable. The film works on three levels: as a visually appealing modern Southwestern saga, as an old-fashioned cowboy story, and as a compelling, slightly troubling look at modern ideas superimposed against an old-fashioned lifestyle. Choose which level you prefer and enjoy a very confident, well-made film.

B+ (2 hrs., 1 min.; R, some violence, a lot of harsh profanity, some strong sexuality, some partial nudity.)